Building Sustainable Organizations and Utilizing Capacity

Community Organizing

Denver     Visiting with a whole range of people before, after, and during screenings and meetings at the University of Denver international center and at Café Mayan, a haven of organizing on the University of Colorado campus in Denver, as well as talking to students, professors, and other before and after made for a fascinating day.  Some questions came up over and over again here in this bustling city with apartment complexes seeming to sprout up everywhere and the sky clouded with construction cranes.  One was how to produce sustainability in organizing campaigns that students had initiated.  The other interestingly was how to full exploit organizational capacity.  In some ways these questions confronted each other at opposite extremes of organizational experience.

The sustainability question was not the usual one confronting organizations who are trying to puzzle out how to get enough staff and resources assembled to continue to grow and move forward.  The questions seemed to spring more from activists having initiated campaigns and having difficulty maintaining momentum, especially without clear ideas or commitment to any specific organizational process.   Implicitly, the questions were too often, “then what?” and “what’s next?”  Activity springing “from the resistance,” so to speak, or in reaction to events on the campus and in the community moved with the shared agreement of a cadre of activists fired up and ready to move, but perhaps without a plan for how to maintain work over an extended period in face of challenges and push back.  I tried to respond in a positive way, saying it was important not to quit and to keep pushing, but I had a nagging feeling the real problem was an unwillingness to take the additional steps to organization building as opposed to movement response.  The next steps involve hard work, longer commitment, and acceptance of individual responsibilities coupled with the initial shared consensus.

On the other end of the spectrum were organizational formations both local and national that had certain capacities, in some cases extensive, but were unsure in this time of change and transition whether or not they were meeting the challenges, adapting sufficiently to the current context, and deploying their capacity fully.  National events that are sweeping over local concerns are confronting all levels of organizations to respond.  There is risk and reward there.  Change is hard in existing institutions.  There are always conservative tendencies that caution institutional leadership not to endanger the organization itself, even when opportunity exists to grow and build.  Staff and members need help understanding change.  Routines become habit, order becomes expectation, even when the mission of the organization may call for more, rather than just enough.

Importantly, the leadership were asking the questions about how to utilize their capacity, rather than running from it.  That’s part of the answer that organizations bring to the question of sustainability that gives them the ability to keep on fighting now and for decades to come.